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Making university studying a habit

We can all agree that academic wellbeing is important. It is one of the 9 pillars of wellbeing that shape our wellbeing framework. Even though some may enjoy the contents of what they study, it is sometimes difficult to sit down and study as necessary. It may be due to a lack of motivation, procrastination, or tiredness – but regardless of the reasons, it can be brought down to the simple concept of maximizing benefits and minimizing discomfort. To figure out why you are having trouble studying, you must figure out what your discomfort is. Perhaps you are a perfectionist, perhaps you don’t get enough sleep, perhaps something is occupying your mind; whatever the reason you must find it and target it effectively.

Can studying become a habit?

The short answer is – not really. Habits such as brushing your teeth are easily formed because they are short, repetitive behaviours occurring in a consistent, automatic context (Lally, van Jaarsevald, Potts & Wardle, 2010 for more). They don’t require much mental effort, whereas studying does. It is a dynamic behaviour - you are likely to encounter varying information every day. In fact, that is perhaps the best aspect of studying in university. The information is not for learning and regurgitating, but rather for absorbing, questioning and re-moulding to create new ideas. Do not try to make a ‘habit’ out of studying, despite what your parents or secondary school teachers may have told you. A day in lockdown is likely already filled with many habits; view studying as the aspect of your day that brings you something novel and exciting.

Here are some short, behavioural tips for making studying a little more effective:

1.) Positive Reinforcement – a revolutionary technique used by supermarkets in the form of Loyalty Cards, slot machines in Las Vegas and scientists giving snacks to rats in the behavioural laboratory. Good grades are not a great form of positive reinforcement, because they don’t occur frequently enough. Reward yourself after setting specific intervals, keep these intervals consistent. Ensure the reward is actually rewarding – watch an episode of a favourite show, join our Let’s Chat sessions or make yourself a cup of tea. For more information look at the review by Thompson and Iwata (2013).

2.) Retrieval practice – every psychology student can tell you what retrieval practice is (because they’ve probably retrieved and practiced the definition). Retrieval practice is hailed as the best method for ensuring that information can be available when you need it. It simply refers to reading and then attempting to retrieve the information without any materials, then doing that a couple of times. Fun fact about memory: it’s not ‘stored’, as was commonly believed until the late 1990’s, it is very environmentally dependent. This is a bonus, because you’ll likely be studying and doing your exams in the same environment this year! For more, look at Roedrigar and Butler (2011), and Sutton (2006).

3.) Walking/ exercise – many believe that exercise is only good for your physical wellbeing, but as the body and the mind are not separable (unless you’re a follower of Descartes), exercise benefits your mental wellbeing greatly. This paragraph could extend into an essay of reviews demonstrating the benefits of any sort of exercise on cognitive performance, but we’ll leave that for other articles. If you’d like to read more about this however – Dr. Shane O’Mara’s book, “In Praise of Walking” (2019) discusses the marvels which a simple walk can do for your brain. This may be the most important tip here, as it also gives a well-needed break from screen-time.

4.) Social Integration – According to a theory by Tinto (1975, 1993), social integration is a strong predictor of academic success. While it may be difficult to make new friends and join societies during lockdown, the committees behind each society are trying their best to make fun, interactive online events. Join our Let’s Study sessions, look through the university’s societies website, search a society you like on Facebook or Instagram and become in tune with what they have to offer this semester!

We hope you can apply some of these simple tips for the next few months, make the best of lockdown and make it a year of excellent academic success.

Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

O'Mara, S. (2019). In praise of walking: The new science of how we walk and why it’s good for us. Random House.

Roediger III, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(1), 20-27.

Sutton, J. (2006). Introduction: memory, embodied cognition, and the extended mind. Philosophical Psychology, 19(3), 281-289.

Thompson, R. H., & Iwata, B. A. (2005). A review of reinforcement control procedures. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 38(2), 257-278.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of educational research, 45(1), 89-125.

Tinto, V. (1993). Building community. Liberal Education, 79(4), 16-21.